Monday, March 4, 2013

Evolution Part II

Since my post establishing my position on evolution, my view has changed completely and I think a new one is in order. I have been doing a lot of reading in the last month, particularly Peter Enns, Francis Collins, and John H. Walton, and I have finally come to a position in the evolution question that makes sense. After my post on Godless became my most commented-on post ever by getting my skeptic friends thinking, it's time to challenge my Christian brethren! I'm just going to set it all out at the beginning, and then you can stop reading if you want:

Genesis 1-2 is an ancient origin myth, compiled from centuries of oral tradition and different writings, and should be understood as such. Adam was not a historical, flesh-and-blood individual. The theory of evolution is probably true as described by modern science, and describes how God created life on earth as it is today through our modern system for describing the cosmos.

That was probably pretty shocking to my average reader. Let's break it down.

Genesis 1-2 is an ancient origin myth, compiled from centuries of oral tradition and different writings and should be understood as such.

First, it's important to realize where Genesis (and the rest of the Pentateuch) came from, the "genesis" of Genesis, if you will. Popular Christian tradition, at least the tradition I grew up in, claims that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but this claim is, at the very least, not entirely true and somewhat misleading. Of course the end of Deuteronomy chronicles the death of Moses, so he obviously didn't write that. But note what verse 34:6 says: "but to this day no one knows where his grave is." Clearly the Pentateuch was compiled and finished by someone writing well after the time of Moses, not Joshua or anyone else right after his death. Same with verse 10: "And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face", which is only meaningful if some time has passed since Moses died.

Or, for example, Genesis 36:31, which has an offhand reference to Israelite kings, which indicates a time of writing at least after the time of the judges. Or 12:6: "At that time the Canaanites were in the land", indicating it was written at least after the reign of David when the Canaanites were no longer in the land. The frequent third-person, past tense references to Moses also point to his not being the (singular) author. The current opinion of scholars is, in fact, that the Pentateuch was written by the scribe Ezra--not from whole cloth, but compiled and edited from a variety of older documents and oral traditions, which certainly could have come from Moses. (The influence of multiple documents is also likely responsible for the numerous parallel stories, like the two creation accounts or the somewhat disjointed nature of the flood story).

Genesis' authorship by a Hebrew living at least in or after the time of David makes it harder to read as a literal, uncolored, journalistic narrative, as we westerners tend to read everything in narrative format. Besides its origin, the genre of Genesis is also critical to understand what it said and did not say to its readers. The perceived conflict between Christianity and science has focused largely on the biological sciences (namely evolution), but advances in historical studies and archaeology in the last two hundred years have also produced some discoveries to shake things up. Specifically, writings from other ancient Near East (ANE) cultures relatively contemporary with the Israelites have been found, including those cultures' creation and other origin myths. These myths have some intriguing similarities and parallels with the book of Genesis that can inform us of how it would have been viewed and used by the Israelites.

For example, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish has the following similarities with Genesis 1:
  • Matter exists before the creation; creation is not creating something out of nothing as commonly believed ("the earth was without form and void, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters") but creating an orderly cosmos out of primordial chaos.
  • Darkness precedes the creation.
  • The chaos symbol in Enuma Elish is the goddess Tiamat; in the Bible it is "the deep", tehom in Hebrew, which is linguistically related to Tiamat.
  • Light is created before the sun, moon, and stars.
  • In Enuma Elish, the creator god Marduk slays his great-grandmother Tiamat and cuts her body in half, with one half creating a barrier between the waters above and below. In the Bible, God creates the sky as a solid barrier ("firmament") to separate the waters.
  • The sequence of the days of creation is similar, including the firmament, land, celestial bodies, and humans, followed by a day of rest.
Similarly, the Mesopotamian epic Atrahasis has many similarities with Genesis 2-8:
  • A garden watered by rivers, tended by God/the gods as a divine sanctuary.
  • Humans are created from clay to work the garden.
  • The institution of marriage.
  • Humans anger the deity (in Atrahasis, hilariously, by making too much noise in their work so the gods can't sleep).
  • In wrath, the deity sends a flood to cleanse the creation.
  • The deity tells one man (Atrahasis or Noah) to build an ark in order to survive.
  • In the act of reconciling the deity with humanity, the man makes a pleasant-smelling sacrifice.
Critical scholars point to similarities like these to say that the Bible is actually a derivative work of older myths, but I think they simply help place the Old Testament back in its native cultural setting. The Old Testament is not independent of human culture and worldview, but embedded in one particular one, that of the Israelites. These similarities don't mean the Old Testament was simply assembled from older, more "original" pagan myths but is reflective of the shared culture and worldview they arose from. Noting these similarities, which seemed to be standard assumptions for creation myths, lets us appreciate the big differences of Israel's story: there is only one God who does everything, there is no conflict or struggle, and the various forces of nature are portrayed as impersonal creations over which God has absolute control, not as subordinate deities. God is completely in control in setting up the cosmos, which was probably meant to imply that the God of Israel is superior to the gods of the surrounding nations. God has no set role or function in the cosmos that He is bound to like pagan deities; He assigns these roles and is not constrained by any. God is also uncreated; unlike other gods, whose origins are documented in their myths, God already exists "in the beginning" with no origin given or implied.

So what does this extremely abridged summary of what I've been reading have to do with our reading of Genesis 1? First and foremost, it means we should stop trying to find ways to make it support or even "fit" with the current scientific theories of origins. The ANE understanding of the cosmos was completely different than our modern, scientific one. To the Israelites and other ANE cultures, the universe looked like this:
At least they got the clouds right.
That is, they believed the earth was a flat disc (Isaiah 40:22 isn't predicting a spherical earth; it really means a disc-shaped earth) sitting on the cosmic sea (not floating, supported by pillars), with a solid dome (the firmament) supported by mountains holding up the waters above, with gates in it to allow water and snow through and God dwelling in the (literally) highest heaven.

Genesis doesn't argue for this view of the cosmos; it assumes it, because it was what everyone believed back then. When Genesis 7:11 says that "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened", that isn't just a poetic device; that's exactly, literally what it means, and it would have made perfect sense to an ancient reader, just like "A nor'easter dumped three feet of slushy mix on New England" would make perfect sense to Americans. The Bible did not unnecessarily try to confuse ancient readers by updating their view of the universe to the modern, "correct" one (assuming that our view is correct); it spoke of their existence and God's sovereignty in the context of the cosmos they knew. Obviously, this is a bit of a problem for Biblical inerrantists and concordists who feel a need to interpret what the Bible says to "fit" with modern ideas of truth. This expectation of the Bible to speak to a modern, scientific paradigm is, I think, unfair and culturally imperialistic, as if we, in the twenty-first century, have finally gotten it "right" in matters of science, literary style, or ethics, and all of history must now conform to our current body of knowledge. (It's a good thing inerrancy didn't become prominent until the 20th century, because no inerrantist in previous centuries without a modern understanding of science could have understood the Bible) Let's let the Bible speak to us as it is, not as we would write it today.

In the case of Genesis 1, this means the ancient Israelites likely interpreted the creation account literally, but very differently than we read it today. Ancient cultures had a functional ontology, as opposed to our material one--that is, "existence" was defined in terms of having a name and a function in the cosmos, not in terms of having a certain material composition and location. The Hebrew word for "create", bara, carries these functional connotations much more than physical ones. In modern terms, this usage might refer to a computer as being "created" when firmware and an operating system are installed on it (when it becomes usable, or "functional"), not when it is physically assembled.

So Genesis 1 isn't about God creating the universe ex nihilo according to the Big bang theory and evolution; it's about Him starting with a formless, chaotic, nonfunctional cosmos (an earth that is "without form and void") and "creating" an orderly, functional one out of it. For ancient cultures, this meant setting up and naming cosmic functions like the day/night cycle, the weather, or agriculture (the first three days). There is even a theory that, as earthly temples were seen as small versions of the cosmos, that it depicts God setting up the cosmos as His grand temple. The "rest" on the seventh day refers not to taking a break, but taking up residence in the temple to begin His work of running everything. This is the kind of creative work seen in contemporary creation myths to the OT. The difference in the accounts is not that the God of the Bible created in a material, "scientifically correct" way that would have made sense to no one in the culture while other gods didn't, it's that God did it alone with no conflict or difficulties. In other words, the differences are theological, not scientific. It's important to stress how (surprisingly) unique the Israelites' monotheism was among every other ANE culture; supporting this monotheism was arguably one of the main points of the Genesis account.

Another point is that the "narrative" portions of the OT aren't so much history as they are historiography. They were not written primarily to document what happened, where, when, how, etc. as we expect today, but to reinterpret history (even mythological history) to make some point. The important thing in these accounts is not so much what happened, but what it means. This was just how history was done back then. For other ANE cultures, this point was usually the legitimacy of the reigning king, who was thought to be the earthly representative of the gods. For the Old Testament, which often portrayed kings in harsh or negative lights, the point was to legitimate their God as supremely worthy of worship and His covenant with them. It's still hard for me to get my head around, but ANE cultures simply weren't as concerned with events as they were with outcomes; they valued interpreting the past more than simply documenting it. Another interesting point is that whereas other ANE cultures felt it was their sacred duty to interpret events to learn what they "meant" as divine revelation, the Israelites considered not only considered historical events but also their interpretations (e.g. through the prophets) to be revealed by God.

In light of all of this, many of the ways modern Christians approach the Old Testament start to seem like impositions of modern ways of thinking and analyzing that simply did not exist when it was written. If we expect such an ancient document to conform to modern ideas of journalistic rigor, science, and ethics, we will try to make it into something it is not and misread it. The first step in understanding the Old Testament is not asking, "What does this mean to me?" but "What did this mean to its original audience?" Remembering that the point of these accounts was not so much the events as the meaning of the outcome and how it interprets the present, we can imagine how the creation account would have resonated with a premodern reader and share in their appreciation of what it says about God, even if we don't share their view of the cosmos. This freedom from having to fit everything the Bible says with what I personally know about the world is transforming how I read the Bible (definitely for the better).

Adam was not a historical, flesh-and-blood individual.

Here is the real kicker. I was convinced of this point by Peter Enns' book, The Evolution of Adam, which was instrumental in addressing so many of the conflicts and doubt I'd been having surrounding the Bible. If we don't believe in the Hebrew view of the cosmos as depicted above (which I assume we don't), and if we accept that language like the sun "standing still" in Joshua 10 reflect this view, which we now hold to be incorrect, if we believe that Genesis 1-3 is a ANE creation myth written in this ancient worldview and a theological statement of definition for the Israelites and their God, in light of what we now know about human origins there is no reason to continue arguing that Adam was a historical person, especially if in the process we lose sight of Adam's theological significance in Genesis. To say that because of his depiction in Genesis to and by the Hebrews as a real person, we also need to argue today that he was, is to miss the point of all the cultural contextualizing I did above. Do we try to believe the world is flat because the Hebrews did?

I think the reason that Christians today who already don't hold to a literal, scientific view of Genesis (as I previously didn't) still hold to belief in a historical Adam is not because of their hermeneutic in reading Genesis, but for theological reasons and what the New Testament says about Adam, which I will get to below. It's also worth noting that after Genesis, there is no other mention of Adam in the Old Testament except in the beginning of 1 Chronicles in a genealogy. I'll also investigate that below.

The theory of evolution is probably true as described by modern science, and describes how God created life on earth as it is today through our modern system for describing the cosmos.

I say "probably" only because the theory of evolution is not complete and could be wrong on some points, not because I still hold out hope that it might be wrong wholesale. If we realize Genesis 1's status as a true ANE creation myth (theologically, not literally/historically true), the remaining obstacles (besides the ones laid out below) to reconciling evolution with the Bible evaporate. Evolution describes a process occurring in a sphere of events completely different from the one Genesis 1 concerns itself with and is defined in terms of a different, scientific view of the cosmos. Trying to modify evolution to fit into the ancient worldview of Genesis 1-2 or trying to reinterpret the text to speak to modern scientific questions is wrong because it ignores the significance of this difference. The challenge is affirming that the Israelites interpreted Genesis 1 literally (from their perspective) while acknowledging that the cosmology in which the book was written has been shown to be inaccurate. We need to go beyond what Genesis 1 actually says (which is different to us than to the ancient Israelites) to what it meant to its original audience, we can begin to transfer its significance to the present day.

Beyond the case I just laid out, you probably have some other objections to such a nonliteral (from our perspective) treatment of the Genesis creation story; I know I did. Here are some of the big ones I worked through:

What about the inclusion of Adam in Luke's genealogy of Christ? Is there some dividing line where the names stop being mythological and become historical people?

First, to be fair, the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1 also includes Adam (his name is, in fact, the first word of the book). In both of these cases, these genealogies are more theological than historical, serving as statements of origin or (for 1 Chronicles) self-definition like Genesis. (They most likely lifted the immediate lineage of Adam directly from the tradition in Genesis) Since these genealogies touch on the same basic issue, I'm only going to worry about the Luke one. It has led me to do a comparison between it and the genealogy in Matthew 1, which yielded some interesting results.

The biggest one is, of course, that the lists of names are largely different (see my previous post, point 10). Matthew also doesn't extend back to Adam, only to Abraham. Though the lineage from Abraham to David is agreed upon (because it was already "canonized" in Genesis and Ruth), the Matthew and Luke genealogies diverge after David, coming together again with Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, then diverging again until Joseph. Apparently some manuscripts of Luke also insert two extra ancestors in the genealogy of David. What's also interesting is that the genealogies wildly disagree on the number of generations--in Matthew there are 16 generations (inclusive) from David to Shealtiel and 11 from Zerubbabel to Joseph; in Luke, there are 22 from David to Shealtiel and 20 from Zerubbabel to Joseph, the latter being almost twice as many. Also interestingly, the Luke genealogy has some familiar names--Joseph, Judah, Simeon, and Levi, all in a row as fathers rather than brothers. While the fathers of these men may have just been feeling nostalgic, it might also reflect a Jewish tradition.

It's important to be aware of our western tendency to always try to figure out "What exactly, really happened?" from accounts that may not be trying to answer that question. The important thing about both genealogies is that they both depict Jesus as a descendant of David, giving legitimacy to His role as the "king of the Jews". And the fact that the genealogies differ so widely indicates that their intention was not to document Jesus' exact family tree with thorough research and cross-referencing, but to make some other point--most importantly that Jesus is from the line of David. I can't claim to know how exactly the Israelites would really have tracked their ancestry (probably a largely oral process) or where the differing genealogies come from, but it no longer bothers me.

Paul uses Adam as a historical figure in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Doesn't this settle the debate?

Well, for starters, as we stated above, the Old Testament's apparent use of Adam as a historical (for the Israelites) figure (like its use of the sky as a solid dome) doesn't obligate us to believe it today, so why should Paul's? But, of course, the real issue is that Paul doesn't just mention Adam but bases a theological argument on his understanding of Adam. Does our new understanding of Adam then invalidate Paul's point about original sin?

I don't think so, though it does change how we approach it. The first step of this is to reconstruct Paul's argument, as he understood it. Paul's (and other apostles') use of the Old Testament was quite different from how modern scholars approach it, as I explained in a previous post. I notice, however, that I didn't actually give any examples of Paul himself creatively using the OT, so I'll give one here. Romans 11:26-27 reads:
“The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
And Isaiah 59:20, which he is citing, says:
"The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins," declares the LORD.
Even accepting that Paul may have been using a different version of the OT than we have, there are some big differences between these. In Isaiah, the redeemer comes to Zion; in Romans, he comes from Zion. But more likely is that Paul was trying, in light of his knowledge of Christ, to make a new theological point by "adjusting" the text. It sounds dishonest today, but again, no one would have minded this kind of creative hermeneutics in Paul's time.

One more example to establish the ultimate precedent for the first-century usage of the OT: Jesus Himself in Matthew 22:23-33.
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
The thing I want to draw attention to in this text is that to us, Jesus' argument makes absolutely no sense. Who today would read Exodus 3:6 and conclude from it that God would one day raise the dead imperishable and celibate, or claim that Moses immediately understood this? And yet, Jesus' (from our perspective) insane troll logic has its desired effect and silences the Sadducees.

Anyway, back to Paul. As I mentioned above, the OT's only mention of Adam outside of Genesis is in the genealogy in 1 Chronicles. Nowhere does it ever connect the Israelites' acts of disobedience with Adam's sin, as Paul does. This fits with how we have seen that the reality of Christ is big enough to Paul for him to radically reinterpret the scriptures around it. Let's look at Paul's argument in Romans 5:12-21.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It begins, of course, with a "therefore" (possibly Paul's favorite word), so we have to look back at the preceding text for some context. He was just exulting in the fact that Jesus has reconciled us to God by dying for us while we were still sinners and enemies to God. "Therefore," Paul says, "just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned." Paul's point here is not to argue for Adam as a historical person. He is using his understanding of Adam as a historical person in the Genesis 3 account to begin to draw a parallel with Christ's monumental act of righteousness. However, he then begins a tangent mid-verse and doesn't finish his thought until verse 18: "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men." In Paul's "christotelic" interpretation of Genesis, Adam represents the great problem to which the gospel is the ultimate solution. If Jesus is the hammer, then Adam is the corresponding nail.

Paul is comparing and contrasting his understanding of Adam as the original sinner with Christ as the original savior. Just as in Adam's sin we all die, through Christ's righteousness we are all made alive. But obviously we can't somehow inherit sinfulness (let alone guilt) from someone who didn't exist. But once we've understood Paul's argument, our modern knowledge of Adam changes Paul's train of thought surprisingly little. Just as writers will freely make allusions to myths they don't believe as historical fact, so our understanding of Adam as the archetypal sinner need not be affected by his historical status. Enns says this in The Evolution of Adam:
By leaving behind Paul's Adam as not the historical first man, we are leaving behind Paul's understanding of the cause of the universal plight of sin and death. ... Admitting the historical and scientific problems with Paul's Adam does not mean in the least that the gospel message is therefore undermined. A literal Adam may not be the first man and cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, but what remains of Paul's theology are the three core elements of the gospel:
  1. The universal and self-evident problem of death
  2. The universal and self-evident problem of sin
  3. The historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ
In other words, Paul's understanding of Adam only serves as an explanation of the origin of our sinful nature, not as a support for our knowledge of sin in the present day. And we can still view Adam's act of disobedience as a kind of "prototype" for our own sin today. Remember that this question does not affect the Christian doctrine that people are innately sinful--the Bible and experience confirm this beyond all doubt, even if it doesn't tell us here why it is so.

One other answer to a possible objection: Paul is definitely treating Christ as a historical figure here, and so should we. The story of Adam is set in primordial time, filtered through hundreds of thousands of years of oral tradition, but the story of Christ happened in Paul's time, as historical to him as the fall of the Soviet Union is to us. (Though not as heavily documented at the time) Let me be clear: at no point in this discussion is the historical nature of Jesus in question. He came, He taught, he died, and he rose again.

Where did sin and death come from if not from a historical Adam? Did God create them?

This is the question that kept me from wholeheartedly embracing evolution for a long time. Evolution necessarily means that living organisms have been living, competing, and dying on earth for billions of years, long before Adam and Eve were around to bring sin into the world. How do you explain the existence of death in the world before sin? Does this mean that God created death, which is supposed to be His enemy? (1 Corinthians 15:26)

Disclaimer: My level of confidence for this question is much lower (around 25%) than it has been up to this point.

First, the Old Testament evidence:

Let's go over the commonly accepted narrative of the "Fall": God created the world perfect, putting two sinless humans in the garden to tend it. Because of their act of sin, God curses the man with toil and death, the women with pain in childbirth and strife with her husband, and the serpent to eat dust and be in enmity with the man. Also, somehow or other the rest of creation is cursed; there are now disease, aging, and natural disasters that bring death and suffering to every creature.

The problem with this narrative is that nowhere, nowhere in the Bible is the "fall" claimed as the reason for anything other than human sinfulness and death and the other things in the curse. There is no clear reason why human sin should also bring about the death of animals, except possibly that the "image of God" put on earth to exercise dominion over them has been tarnished. This is a stretch. If the Hebrews did have a myth for why everything dies, I don't think this is it; death seems to be more assumed (and explained in terms of God's creation of man) than introduced here. And, of course, if you do take this account literally as the reason for physical death, it only answers half of the question: why do women die? And why do they also return to dust rather than to ribs? It's just hard for me to read the text in such an explanatory way, at least in the modern sense.

There is also a strong hint that the garden wasn't meant to be seen as "perfect" as we often think of it: the talking, lying snake that tricks Adam and Eve into sinning in the first place. How did it get there? (Also recall that Genesis 3 doesn't specifically identify it with Satan; that is inferred by harmonizing interpreters) The snake's level of culpability in the fall is debatable, but it is strongly implied to be responsible for it. If the snake really is Satan or some other agent of evil, is it possible the reason for the world being imperfect is found outside humanity?

I don't think the Genesis account was written to answer broad questions about the human race; it was written by Israel, (originally) for Israel. One of the most likely theories I've heard about its role in their tradition was that Adam was a metaphor for the Israelites; his fall from the paradisaical garden paralleled the Israelites' exile from the promised land, making Genesis 3 a kind of proto-exile story paralleling Israel's history. (The Pentateuch's being fully compiled around or after the time of the exile makes this especially plausible) Again, recall that narrative works in the ANE weren't as concerned with what happened as with what it means--in this case, to the postexilic Jewish people about themselves and their God. Paul recontextualizes the Old Testament in light of the work of Christ, which was universal, for Jew and gentile, and so he also applies his interpretation of Adam to everyone.

And the New Testament:

Recall from above that basically the whole Protestant doctrine of original sin rests on Paul's writings in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, especially in Romans. I am now convinced that the "death" Paul writes about in relation to sin throughout Romans is not physical, but spiritual in nature--death as alienation and separation from God because of sin, and therefore receiving "death" instead of the the true life that is found in Him. Of the 20 uses of the Greek word for "death", θανατος ("thanatos"), in Romans, three refer to Christ's sacrificial death (and it is the spiritual, not physical, dimension of Christ's death that Paul makes much of) and the rest are either ambiguous in nature or definitely used in a spiritual sense (especially in Romans 7--e.g. in v. 9-10, Paul was not physically killed by the law). This understanding allows Paul's writing about sin and death in the present or past tense to make more sense--you aren't just going to die because of sin, if you are in sin you are currently dead or dying, in Paul's usage.

In fact, I think that attaching physical connotations to Paul's writing about the relationship between sin and death raises many unnecessary questions and problems. It is undeniable that Paul draws a strong, causal relationship between sin and death throughout the first half of Romans. (5:12, 5:21, 6:23, 7:9, 7:24, 8:2, 8:13, to name a few). The one I will concern myself with, however, is the one that seems to argue the most clearly for a causal relationship between sin and physical death, Romans 8:10: "But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness."

Context is, as they say, king, so let's look at the immediate context of this verse. Chapter 8 begins with "there is therefore...", "therefore" being Paul's way of linking his argument with what came before. Chapter 7 before it is, of course, the famous tongue-twisting "I do not do what I want to do" section where Paul expresses genuine angst over his still-extant sinful nature, the law of sin, that wages war in his members against the law of his mind. Having recently read Plato's Republic, I can't help but draw some parallels here with Plato's elevation of the transcendent, rational mind above the "spirit" (passions and emotions) and base desires which are associated with the physical body. Of course Paul doesn't think the mind is perfectly spiritual and unfallen (in Romans 12:2 it needs  "renewing"), but he seems to closely associate it with the "inner being" (7:22) that delights in God, not sin, desires to do what is right, and wars against the flesh. This reflects how, for Christians, sin and disobedience are most often unconscious, "in hiding", while our faith and desire for God are very conscious and intentional.

Anyway, in verse 24 Paul laments: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" The word for "body" here, σωμα ("soma"), is the same as the one used in 8:10. This lament comes from the situation described in the previous three verses: "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members." "Members" here, meaning the parts of the body, is also used to mean the parts of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. It doesn't seem like Paul is using the word to mean the actual, physical organs of the body, but the faculties of his being that are still sinful (or possibly that he didn't draw a distinction between them as we do today; the heart was considered to be the center of human thought in Paul's time). The mental image I get is that the kingdom of God is planted in Paul like a seed (Matthew 13:31-32), growing outward (from the heart, thought by the Greeks to be the center of human thought and personality) and encompassing more and more of his person, pushing his unredeemed, sinful "members" outward.

Of course Paul is not saying that his arms, legs, eyes, ears, etc. are causing him to sin, just as Jesus wasn't in Matthew 5:29-30. He uses "members" in a more abstract sense to simply mean his unregenerate side. This, I think, is what he is getting at when he says "body of death" in v24: sin is like a cage that keeps him from loving God and turning from sin as his "inner man" desires. Then v25 serves as a summary: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." So Paul doesn't think that sin is some kind of physical phenomenon that is caused by an innately sinful physical body, but he doesn't seem to differentiate between them as strongly as we might think--the very fact that he uses "flesh" as a synonym for "sinful nature" is telling here.

Turning back to chapter 8, we see that Paul isn't necessarily referring to the physical body in verse 10--not exclusively, anyway. I think he is closely paralleling the moribund nature of our bodies with the deadness of our as-yet-unredeemed selves due to sin, and that this parallel is largely based on the culture he's from. Again, in the previous nine verses leading up to 8:10, he is talking about (inner) life by the Spirit and (inner) death in sin and the flesh. For Paul to switch from speaking of spiritual realities to biological applications so abruptly would be unusual, to say the least. Maybe, in his ancient understanding of the body, Paul also believed that physical death was due to sin, but in any case it isn't his main point. So then, again, in the next verse he can promise: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." The point is not just that we're going to live after dying (because then Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus would have been enough): it's that God is doing to utterly destroy the forces of sin and death at work in our "bodies".

Paul's specific theology aside, breaking the association between sin and physical death also clears up some other incongruities, such as:
  • The identical (or near-identical) nature of human aging and death with that of other animals, who (presumably) don't sin.
  • The lack of an observed causal relationship between sin and physical death the way we see one between sin and spiritual death as separation from God--whereas sin does definitely damage or even destroy our relationship with God, in general we see no such relationship with sin causing or hastening physical death. (Which Qoholeth laments several times in Ecclesiastes)
  • The fact that people who are in Christ still (physically) die at all if their sin has been taken away. Does this mean Christ's death and resurrection were somehow less than perfectly effective for them? The NT often uses the phrase "fell asleep" to refer to this, which I don't think is just a euphemism--they saw physical death as less real than the death they were saved from.
So after all that, why, again, is there sin and death in the world? I'm not sure that the Bible gives a definitive answer to this question, or even that it's the right question. Our primary gospel concern is not the brokenness of the world (God has promised to deal with that) but our own sin, and Paul's Adam narrative still very much works on the personal level, using Adam's sin as the prototypical example of our own and rebellion. One thing I would say strongly is that we can't simply argue, as Alvin Plantinga seems to imply, that sin/moral evil is merely an inevitable consequence of free will, because this would mean the sin-free paradise depicted in Revelation is also free of free will--hardly something to look forward to! My best guess at this point, extrapolating from the Genesis 3 narrative, is that our sinful nature (but not our individual sins) is the result of external influence--the "serpent" in Genesis; call it the devil if you wish. I'm already too far out on a limb and I won't explore this explanation any further.

Why things aren't the way they "should" be is a hard question for any belief system. Obviously, I don't, and no one else does either, have any idea why God, being somehow in control of all things, chose (in some predeterminative sense) to have things happen the way they did. But from His perspective, history seems to have a definite direction and an ultimate destination, and it is in this that we place our hope--that regardless of where sin came from in the world or in ourselves, that Christ is the ultimate Answer.

A few acknowledgements: I am beholden to several books for this shift in my thinking about Genesis and my larger realization of the glaring need to read the Bible in its cultural context. I'll recommend them here.

As I mentioned in my sola scriptura post, Peter Enns has become possibly my favorite theologian, at least for Old Testament hermeneutics. The then-new for me, culturally conditioned way of reading scripture that he introduced came at the perfect time as the answer to my multiplying doubts. I have two of his books, but they share a lot of the same line of thinking so getting both isn't terribly necessary. Inspiration and Incarnation deals more broadly with interpretive challenges when reading the Old Testament and his view of the Bible as an "incarnational" (both divine and human, like Jesus) text; The Evolution of Adam focuses on the creation of Adam and Paul's use of Adam in the NT, and provided some of the basic framework for my argument here.

John Walton is another Old Testament scholar with somewhat more "mainstream" views on Adam, but with a huge knowledge of the cultural and historical background of the OT. The Lost World of Genesis One presents (surprisingly plausibly) his hypothesis that Genesis 1 is a kind of "cosmic inauguration" account depicting God creating the cosmos as His earthly temple and then taking up residence in it. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament is more satisfyingly academic in tone, more like a textbook with an amazingly broad and deep overview of the thought world of the ancient Near East and frequent comparisons between ancient civilizations like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Babylon with Israel.

This is the book I most recently read and it might be my highest recommendation of all of them. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes goes over myriad ways that our western thought patterns and biases, many of which are below the level of conscious thought, with many examples from one of the authors' time as a missionary in Indonesia. The lessons in these pages may not overturn any major doctrine, but they will help you gain a richer understanding of the Bible and may answer some questions of "Why is THAT in there?" that you've had but never voiced.

1 comment:

  1. This post concisely sums up my point about Paul's treatment of Adam: